The run-up to the next national elections in Italy (to be held on 24/25 February) is marked by two trends that have already troubled the country's political life in the past years: fragmentation and political instability.
Following Mario Monti's decision to run for Prime Minister and the rise of timeless Silvio Berlusconi after much presence on television, the outcome of the elections may not be as certain and definite as it was only one month ago, when a victory by the Secretary of the Centre-Left Democratic Party (Pd) was predicted by most pollsters.
On the one hand, Mr Monti's candidacy has provided the basis for a 'rassemblement' among the Centre parties against Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL), with the support of Pier Ferdinando Casini (a former ally of Berlusconi and, in some regions, of Bersani) and Gianfranco Fini (a former member of Berlusconi's government), who both hope to play a role in the next government. According to recent polls, however, the 'With Monti for Italy' coalition should not gain more than 14% of the vote. Monti, Casini and Fini would have to become partners with Bersani's coalition (and his extreme left allies), which may obtain up to 33% of the vote. In other words, a coalition as diverse and wide as the Prodi government was in 2006-08, distrusted by the Parliament for its lack of a majoritarian and internal consensus, may set up its stall next February.
But Berlusconi's charisma and force of persuasion, although reduced due to his inefficiency and wrongdoings while in power, should not be underestimated, as Italy's politics have proved to be very volatile - and subject to sudden changes over time. His PdL has concluded an alliance with the Northern League, the xenophobic and secessionist party whose leader, Roberto Maroni, has stated that he wants to propose a Northern macro-region that would retain at least 75% of taxes that currently go to the central state in Rome.
Berlusconi's choice to once again run for leadership has spread concerns in his coalition and among allied parties. In fact, until just one month ago, the Secretary of the PdL, Angelino Alfano (a former Minister of Justice) was certain to be the next candidate for the elections, while other centre-right leaders were campaigning for primary elections to democratically choose the new chief of the coalition. But Berlusconi's choice has changed the situation dramatically, to the extent that former Ministers such as Giorgia Meloni (Youth) and Ignazio La Russa (Defence) have opted for founding a new, explicitly right-wing political organization. But even by running in a coalition with the PdL, they probably won't be be able to get more than 27% of the vote.
However, what emerges from this year's campaign is the mounting resentment against the missed renewal of political leadership, as well as rising abstention. Actually, most Italians do not see a credible exit strategy from the economic crisis and many prefer not to vote, although some may end up voting for populist or protest parties.
In this respect, the power of Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S) is convincing but in decline, having around 17% of potential support by Italians. This movement, which promotes a revolutionary answer to the political crisis by tackling corruption and ensuring a two-mandate rotation of candidates, has managed to remobilize part of the abstention electorate to form the biggest group of representatives (15) in the Sicilian Parliament following last October's regional elections, only a few years after the birth of the M5S.
Evidence shows that the next Italian Parliament will most likely be a fragmented one, as coalitions more than single parties will form the government, with a high degree of compromise potentially leading to weak reforms. Meanwhile Rome is following austerity directives from Brussels, and this is on the top of the long list of factors preventing rapid recovery: high public debt, soaring and diffused corruption, slow bureaucracy disadvantaging investments and no perspectives of growth in the near future.
Therefore it is not this year's election that will put the nation on the track toward a better situation. The political mess, the battle to survive, parasitism and the widespread need for preserving one's own privileges are choking the national debate when it comes to ideas and content. On television, politicians, journalists, experts and professionals only share views on numbers, symbols, lists, elections and little parties instead of bigger topics that are crucial for the nation's destiny.
What is really disappointing is that most of the politicians who offer their solutions for recovery are the same people who have contributed to bringing Italy to the brink. As an example, while Mr Monti propagates the idea of new politics with the contribution of civil society, he does not mention that his main supporters, Gianfranco Fini and Pier Ferdinando Casini, have basically spent their whole professional life (around 30 years) in the Italian Parliament, with no successful outcomes. In Berlusconi's and Bersani's coalitions, there have been scandals of unwise spending of electoral funding, accusations of bribery and hidden agreement with opponents to approve disgraceful provisions.
The Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo has thrown a light on outdated ways of doing politics, and proposed the internet as an innovative means of raising awareness and bringing citizens closer to their institutions. An argument can be made to spread the message of politics as a service to the community rather than as a shortcut to a high salary and a long and safe career. Because this is precisely what most politicians do in Italy: they start as local representatives, then run as candidates in Provinces, Regions, national Parliament and European Parliament. This is why Italian politics is widely seen as obsolete and static. In the last Sicily elections, more than half of Sicilians (53%) decided not to express their vote because of a diffuse resentment and anger against what is named “the caste”, a bulk of untouchable people who escape from meritocracy, direct elections and even trials.
On the other hand, this phenomenon paved the way to another claim, that ordinary people can rule the country much better than the mostly corrupt political class. So a strong demand for political participation overcoming traditional right/left wing ideologies is emerging across the country, given that many politicians have run for diverse coalitions throughout their political career.
Mr Bersani has been Minister of Economic Development under the Prodi administration and has built dialogue with trade unions, civil society and the political establishment. But he has been elected by the conservative wing of his party, whereas Matteo Renzi's (the reformist mayor of Florence) innovative politics were roundly rejected in last November's centre-left primary elections.
It is likely we will see a Bersani-Monti coalition in the next Parliament, where most representatives will be the ones who supported the Monti government until a few months ago. In other words, the next (Bersani?) government will probably carry on with Monti's controversial reform agenda, this time with a popular mandate, with the support of Fini and Casini, who are crucial allies for governing, especially - under the Italian electoral system - if you want to hold a majority in the Senate.
To sum it up, the government that will be in power from March won't be very different from the Monti administration, unless Bersani decides to depart from Brussels' strategy and austerity directives. But the strong fragmentation and such a diverse Parliament with a myriad of little parties having a strong say may lead to another season of stalemate and paralysis politics. And, what is worst, the representatives who have brought Italy to this point will probably be elected once again by Italians keen to 'save the country from disaster'.